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An Autism Spectrum News Exclusive Interview with the Co-Directors of the New Shrub Oak International School

The Shrub Oak International School, located in New York’s Westchester County, is scheduled to open their doors in September of 2018. Shrub Oak promises to be a “world-class, private, special education boarding and day school preparing students for independent adult life and employment. Serving the sophisticated needs of an international co-ed population of young adults on the Autism Spectrum, the school’s innovative relationship-based program is grounded in evidence-based principles that build on each student’s specific needs and interests. Shrub Oak’s modern, technology-infused facility is set on 127 acres of farmland where students can learn everyday living skills in a natural environment.”

Autism Spectrum News is delighted to share with you this exclusive interview with Shrub Oak Co-Directors Gil Tippy, PsyD, and Dianne Zager, PhD.

Shrub Oak Co-Directors Dianne Zager, PhD, and Gil Tippy, PsyD

Shrub Oak Co-Directors
Dianne Zager, PhD, and Gil Tippy, PsyD

What is your past experience and what will your role be at Shrub Oak?

Gil Tippy, PsyD: For the last 35+ years I’ve been a teacher and/or psychologist in the public and private schools, and currently I am a clinical psychiatrist. I’m coming from the Rebecca School in NYC where I was one of the founders and the clinical director. At Shrub Oak International, my position will be Co-Director and Head of Clinical. I will be responsible for the occupational and physical therapy, speech and language support, mental health support, and I’ll also be supervising the farm, equestrian program and the music therapy program (which will employ Nordoff-Robbins trained music therapists).

Dianne Zager, PhD: My career in autism has spanned around 40 years. Most recently I’ve been a professor of special education at Pace University in NYC where I trained future educators. I am also a professor emeritus at CW-Post campus, Long Island University. I started my career teaching students at the Adams School in NYC, where I taught students who had conduct disorders and significant learning disabilities. I have conducted extensive research and writing in the area of transition for students with autism over the years and directed the research committee at The Center for Developmental Disabilities in Long Island, NY. I have been President of the NYS Council for Exceptional Children, the Northeastern Educational Research Association, and the Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities for the Council for Exceptional Children. It’s been my goal over my long career to push the envelope and improve the quality of services for students with significant disabilities, especially autism. I will be Co-Director of Shrub Oak with Gil and Dean of Education, overseeing the educational programming curriculum.

What was the inspiration to create a residential school for autism, and what is the school’s mission?

Dianne: The mission of Shrub Oak is empower our students to successfully pursue higher education and/or meaningful career paths, while increasing independence for adult life, enabling all students to be participating and contributing members of their community. Our goal is for the students who graduate from Shrub Oak to be ready to either pursue further education or begin meaningful career paths. We are preparing our students for successful transition from school to adult living and employment and to be fully participating members of the community that they choose to reside in.

Gil: In opening a residential school, our vision is to create a seamless environment tying together academic time, student life, and support services. This integrated model of support includes all of the experience that Dianne brings as well as a developmental perspective that I bring from my experience. This is then put together into a program that supports individuals for 24 hours per day across their entire living situation: The academic time – in classrooms, out on the campus farm and the equestrian program; the student life piece – in the dorms, in the community, effectively bringing people into the community; and clinical support. This will all be integrated at Shrub Oak 24 hours per day, 365 days a year. This model is what inspired the school.

2018 Shrub Oak Full

What will the clinical approach be to supporting your students?

Dianne: The program that will be provided in any part of Shrub Oak will be completely customized and individualized for each student. The educational approach will be evidence- and research-based and will always be an empirically-validated program. We will utilize the major approaches that have solid evidence-based research behind them. We will be collecting data on every student’s progress and will be informing our practice through data. This is something that sets Oak Shrub apart from other schools that will tell you that they primarily employ a single method of intervention such as ABA or DIR/Floortime. We are not buying into a single philosophy or approach, we are buying into the student. We will take from every approach that has an evidence-base to show that it does work and we will meet that student where that student’s needs are. The data we collect will be continually referenced to ensure that we are meeting their needs.

Brenda-Smith Myles, who is an Advisory Board Member, will help us plan our educational program. We will use the Ziggurat Program, developed by Ruth Aspy and Barry Grossman, as a framework which complements all of the existing evidence-based programs. It enables you to look at the child through a biological and etiological lens and asses their sensory issues, learning issues, behavioral and social needs, etc., and then develop a configuration of strategies and methods that will meet that student’s needs. This will then be changed and tweaked as the student develops. We will take those pieces, put it into a relationship-based, strength-based model, where we are paying attention to the student’s strengths, preferences, sensory needs, interests, and provide a program where the motivation is intrinsic so that students will be engaged and motivated in their learning activities.

We will be working with older students, primarily ages 14 – 22 years old, with a handful of adults going up to age 35. We won’t have any kind of strict discrete trial ABA. Teenagers and young adults need parameters set so they know what they are expected to do, and how to behave. We will catch them being good, and praise and reward them in many ways. But most of this will be naturally occurring reinforcement; not an artificial setting like a 9 am – 3 pm school. Shrub Oak will be a 24 hour/7 days per week/365 days a year life and community for them, so it will become a really active community of learners working and living together.

We are taking the best of the evidence-based approaches and the research-based and emerging best practices and our team of highly experienced professionals integrate that for the student. I don’t think this is done anywhere.

How will you meet the academic needs of your students?

Dianne: We are going to have two paths. One will be a college and career path and one will be a skills and achievement path. The college and career path will geared towards academically talented students who are likely to go on and pursue post-secondary education college education. The skills and achievement path will be for students who are more directed towards being prepared for a career. They will have an academic program, but not a high school diploma-type program. Regardless of the path, every student will receive a credential from Shrub Oak. One credential will be the Shrub Oak high school curriculum diploma and the other will be the Skills and Achievement diploma.

Classrooms will typically be “8-1-3,” or a 2 to 1 ratio. This means that in every classroom of eight students, there will be a teacher with a Master’s level education with a certification as a special education teacher and also three teaching assistants, who will most likely be working towards becoming Master-level teachers. In addition to this typical teacher to student ratio, clinicians will be with the students regardless of what activities they are involved with, be they snowshoeing, swimming, on the farm, in the glass works studio, etc. For example, if students are going to an art class, they will be supported by the art teacher, the Master’s level classroom teacher, the three teaching assistants, and a few clinicians. So we are looking at a very high student to teacher and clinician ratio.

We will design each education program with an IEP that meets that student’s educational goals and needs. It will be student-centered, person-centered and will be heavily focused on self-determination. Michael Wehmeyer, PhD, professor at the University of Kansas and renowned international guru on self-determination, is on our Advisory Board. He will be doing staff development on self-determination. Our Advisory Board is made up of the leaders who have created the evidence-based strategies and methods in the educational world for students with autism. They will be guiding and supporting the staff at Shrub Oak.

I know that we are doing something that really needs to be done, and that will be a model for other places to replicate.

How will Shrub Oak International provide students the opportunity to integrate with the community?

Gil: I’m a big believer that individuals with autism have much to bring to the community. Knowing that we are coming from a strength-based model, not only will we be utilizing the community resources, we will also be providing service to the community. Too often, communities see the individuals with autism as being people who the community needs to help. I actually think that we are going to be reaching into the community to say that we have a lot to offer and we are going to come to your aid. For example, we will eventually have an organic farm on the campus and we will create a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture). The way a CSA functions is that you get a box of produce from the farm once a week if you sign into it. Normally the model for this is that people pay to participate in a CSA. My goal for Shrub Oak would be to run a CSA for individuals who are identified in the community as needing additional nutritional support. The Shrub Oak students who are helping to produce this good and healthy food would work together to create products that can be made available to people who may not have the financial means to access that kind of food.

Too long have we stood here and said, “Community, come and support us.” In fact, the autism community and the community of folks who have autism actually have a tremendous amount to offer society. So when we think about coming into the community, it will be with the notion of, “Here’s what we can offer you, and here’s why you need us.”

How will the admissions process work? What does the typical Shrub Oak student look like?

Gil: After an application is submitted, students will come in for an integrated assessment. Dianne, her staff, and I will then be given the opportunity to interview the prospective student. There will also be an occupational therapist and speech and language pathologist looking at what support needs this student might need if they were to attend Shrub Oak. I would love to have a clinical music therapist there as well. After this intake, the student would take a campus tour.

A large percentage of students will most likely come from the NY-metropolitan area. Having traveled around the country, spoken at many different places, and being on the advisory boards of some different autism organizations, I have seen that there is a real need nationally. So I can imagine that we will receive applications from people all over the country.

We will have individuals in need of a wide range of support that exhibit a range of behavioral issues and being on either end of the spectrum does not exclude anyone from attending Shrub Oak. I have always thought that behavior is really a communication, and we need to find a way to make communication more effective so that negative behaviors go down. I can see Shrub Oak accepting students who are highly verbal, going to be the valedictorians of their high school classes, who have some social-emotional challenges that are really impeding their ability and perhaps need some additional sensory support at school. I can also see students at Shrub Oak who need additional support in their communication, require a lot of physiological intervention, and who are big consumers of occupational and physical therapy, speech and language services, clinical music therapy, and mental health services.

So for me, the criteria that would make a student a good fit for Shrub Oak would be: can you benefit from this intervention program, and can we offer you what you deserve to have.

Dianne: We will have a wide range of students applying. If we can meet their needs, we will accept them. If we cannot meet their needs, once someone has approached us we will help them find somewhere that will and can.

How will Shrub Oak help students transition to life after school?

Dianne: For the last three decades, my focus has been on transition from school to independent adult living, community integration, and transition to employment and post-secondary education. During this time, I’ve been working with my graduate students to teach them how to implement this. Now, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to direct a program that will be doing what I’ve been teaching and researching for the last 30 years.

We know that there is 75% un-employment and under-employment of individuals with autism. We are going to change that. Shrub Oak’s entire focus is on preparation and success for life. Our academics will be geared towards one or the other pathways for students as mentioned earlier. We will have transition coordinators working with businesses in the community to set up internships for students. As Gil said, our students will be helping the community. The surrounding community has many businesses and opportunities where our students will have a lot to offer and where they can learn and explore different careers. We’ll make relationships with colleges and universities that will understand the Shrub Oak curriculum so that our college-bound students will be able to go to colleges where they will be able to receive the support they need to continue their academic and career-focused educations.

We will assess everything we do to make sure that those students are having meaningful internships and explorations of the world and the career or educational path that is ahead of them. In order to do this, we’ve hired Tracey Frank to be Director of Education. Tracey is especially qualified as she was one of the best students and graduate research assistants that I had in a federally funded autism transition program at CW Post years ago. She has garnered additional degrees at Johns Hopkins and has been working as a teacher and coordinator for students with autism for several years. She has left her job in Maryland to join the Shrub Oak team. We share a very similar focus and a passion for transition.

Our education program will transcend the four walls of any classroom. The program at Shrub Oak will look nothing like the traditional classroom school day. Our vision is that the school day and education at Shrub Oak will use the entire campus and surrounding community. We will integrate academics and career development skills in the natural setting.

In addition, we will maintain active lines of communication with the parents. It is imperative to really listen and pay attention to the parents and families of the students to ensure their needs are fully met.

How can people find out more information about Shrub Oak?

Gil: The first thing you should do if you are interested in learning more about the Shrub Oak International School is to visit the website at www.ShrubOak.org. Once people make contact, then we will all be available to help guide them through the process of applying.

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